I recently spoke with Americana recording artist and singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon while he was home for a few day’s break from his current 16-stop tour in support of his new album Long Gone Time. I’d caught his September 5 “album release” show at Elk Creek Café in Milheim, PA, and found he and long-time bandmates in fine form. They displayed the kind of tight collaborative musicianship you’d expect from guys who’ve played together for more than 25 years, offering up a hell of a good set mixing some of the best of his last three albums with the new material. Long Gone Time has a couple of good mid- and up-tempo rockers, but it is overall a little quieter than most of Gordon’s earlier work, a little more introspective – and that’s not a bad thing, not when you have a wordsmith as talented as Gordon who possesses an exceptionally evocative voice able to express everything from heartbreak, joy, weariness, cockiness, angst and more with equal facility in service to the song.
But I’m here to tell you, based on his live performance at Elk Creek Café, Gordon and gang aren’t shying away from the rockers on tour. Gordon plucked the fuck out of his Gibson ES-125 and sang with, at turns, a gruff growl, a wailing moan, a sad sigh, a sly knowingness, a quiet brittleness. He had the audience making all sorts of squirmy gyrations in their chairs one moment, then sitting stunned into appreciative stillness the next.
Gordon has been writing, recording, and performing songs drenched in the sweat, sorrow and swagger of the South for 25 years. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and reared in nearby Monroe, Gordon went on to study at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earned an MFA in poetry before turning his full-focus and remarkable talents to writing and playing music. He moved to East Nashville in 1992 and has been living and recording from there ever since.
Kevin Gordon doesn’t rush things. Long Gone Time is his fifth full cd in those 25 years, though he’s put out a few other little odd bits and pieces here and there. He’s worked off and on for that long with producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist wunderkind Joe McMahan, bass player Ron Eoff, and drummer/percussionist Paul Griffith, all of whom are with him on tour. McMahan served as producer, engineer, guitarist and background vocalist on this recording and has done much the same for most of Gordon’s albums.
Long Gone Time, like almost all of Gordon’s recordings, is quintessentially of and about the South. He includes things like shotguns, biscuits, tent revivals, rhinestones, levees – even Johnny Horton, the 1950s rockabilly star who grew up in East Texas not that far from Gordon’s old stomping grounds who went on to record “The Battle of New Orleans.” And it all flows as naturally as a long conversation with an old friend.
You’ve written and recorded many songs through the years that hark back to your youth and your homeland of Louisiana. Long Gone Time seems to me, in not only its title but also its lyrics and spirit, to do so even more than earlier albums. Do you ever visit?
I try to go back when I have reasons to. Sometimes I’ll just conjure a show or two and go down there. I love going back. It still feels like home to me although I don’t know if I could live there again unless I had a really good reason to.
Before we get to some of the lyrics – the stories, really – of Long Gone Time what can you say about how it evolved musically? I noticed the songs are about equally split between electric and acoustic.
I gave Joe McMahan rough, solo demos of everything I was thinking about recording. That helped him form a picture of the sound maybe that he wanted to go for. One of his ideas was that he wanted to split the record in half – half acoustic and half electric. We were going to sequence the CD that way, put all the acoustic first but decided not to do that for the album. I think it would work though and when we do issue the vinyl, which will probably not be until the first of the year, it’ll be a double LP with all the acoustic tracks on one record and all the electric on the other.
So many of your song lyrics highlight these arresting images that evoke a specific time and place and often the cultural background of the South. One haunting example of that on this album is “Shotgun Behind the Door,” a beautiful, slow acoustic ballad.
That was a song that originated with that image, with that knowledge that my great-grandparents did keep a loaded shotgun by the front door. My great-grandparents were from the country. They were very rural people. They grew up in North Central Louisiana in Jackson Parish and it wasn’t unusual for people to have firearms close at hand in the rural South. It’s just part of the life.
I had that image in my head but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I ended up using my memory of my great-grandparents’ house as kind of an interior landscape as I was writing the song. For instance, I referenced some of my great-grandfather’s habits, like watching Lawrence Welk on TV. But the guy in the song definitely isn’t the same guy as my great grandfather. So it was an interesting thing for me in the way the literal was blended with the imaginary. I’ll all for lying for the sake of the larger truth, you know.
More of that kind of evocative imagery is captured in “Letter to Shreveport,” another down-tempo song. It references “black ink between blue lines,” and then “hot coffee in a percolator” and “hot biscuits on the stove” and such things.
I had that first verse, the image of the black ink on the notebook paper between the blue lines and at the same time I was writing the other song about Brownie Ford. At certain points in time they were the same song but eventually they split and Letter to Shreveport became a much darker atmospheric vibe in the sense that it was just floating images like the image of the percolator on the stove. That was from my dad’s mom, my grandmother’s kitchen in Shreveport. I just liked the way those lines sounded together. I guess that’s one of the more obvious songs dealing with that feeling of alienation, being from that place but feeling like you’re outside of it. That’s something new for me. The kind of plainspoken thing there in that part of it just felt right.
You mention Brownie Ford in that song but he has his very own song on the album, “Goodnight Brownie Ford.” I understand he’s a real person. Who was he?
Brownie Ford was from Oklahoma originally. He was half-Comanche and he was one of those people who really did run away with the circus when he was a kid. As the song says, worked Wild West shows and circuses and whatnot. Knew how to work with animals. Ended up as an older man settling in North Louisiana and being what folks there would call a woods cowboy, which was basically someone who worked with cattle in that area. He was a tough guy, one of those old men who, just looking at him you thought he was indestructible. Kind of like the great fife player Othar Turner. Out of North Mississippi. I knew him a few years before he died and he was a similar character, raised to work the land – hard labor, and it showed. It’s amazing that I talked to Brownie only 10 or 15 minutes the time I met him but he stuck with me. It was right before I moved to Nashville. I just happened to see him perform at the local café in Monroe where I played when I was in college there. I talked to him afterwards and happened to tell him that I was moving to Nashville. What he told me, in a much less polite version of what’s on the record, essentially ‘Don’t let those fucking people tell you what to do, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ I kind of took that to heart. His advice kind of resonated with me in terms of stickin’ to your guns, so to speak. He had worked some in Beaumont, Texas, had a radio show for a while, probably in the 50s, and he knew George Jones, so he had some knowledge of the music business though he never came to Nashville and he made only one record in his life and that was not long before I met him. He made a record in about 1990 with David Doucet from the Cajun band BeauSoleil.
So, you’re gradually winding down to the end of this current tour, or at least this stretch of it. What’s coming up?
Well, we’ve got a show in Pennsylvania, then a couple in and around Nashville, one in St. Louis and then another back in Nashville in December. Then, I think we’re planning a West Coast swing after the first of the year and planning a return visit to Ireland in March.
Well, good luck with all of it and thanks for the great music.
Thank you, Wayne.